Time puts us on America’s backbone

Brief by Central Staff

US 50 – August 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

U.S. Highway 50, which traverses Central Colorado, has been called “America’s Loneliest Highway.” The editors of Time figured that a two-lane blacktop could tell “the Inside Story” of America, and thus a cross-country bus trip this spring and 60 pages of text and photos.

And how do we fit in America’s inside story? Along the “backbone of America,” Time found:

Cañon City: Old Wild West city, now home to nine state prisons.

Salida: Citizens claim their 10,000-light tree on Christmas Mountain USA is the largest of its kind in the U.S.

Monarch Pass: Highest point on Highway 50 (elev. 11,312 feet).

The Gunnison Country got seven pages of text and photos, focusing on the coalition between ranchers and environmentalists that has developed there in the past five or six years.

Environmentalists there decided that cows make better neighbors than condos, and ranchers concluded that if they wanted to save their way of life from development, they needed political support. Thus the alliance, and the Time story is good reading.

Highway 50 hasn’t always been known as “America’s Loneliest Road” or “the Backbone of America,” however. In the years right after World War I, when the car began taking over the country, highways had names, not numbers. The transcontinental Lincoln Highway crossed Wyoming.

And today’s U.S. 40 in northern Colorado was the “Victory Highway” to honor the Allied triumph in the War to End All Wars. That name survives today as Victory Boulevard in Craig, Colo. Rainbow Boulevard, a/k/a Highway 50 through Salida, is likewise a relic of when US 50 was called “the Rainbow Route.”

Why Rainbow when the highway does not arc across the continent, but runs reasonably straight?

One guess is that it came from the nickname of the U.S. Army’s famous 42nd Division, formed by Major Douglas MacArthur during World War I. The 42nd was composed of National Guard units drawn from 26 states, and this diversity of origins inspired Mac Arthur to call it “a rainbow division.”

Around here, the Rainbow Route originally avoided the towering mountain wall due west of Salida before Old Monarch Pass was built in 1922. Instead, it swung south over Poncha Pass before swinging west at Saguache to reach Pacific drainage at Cochetopa Pass.

Today’s Highway 24 from Colorado Springs across South Park to Buena Vista, Leadville, and Eagle was then called the Ocean-to-Ocean Highway, or sometimes more grandly the Pikes Peak Ocean-to-Ocean Highway. And U.S. 285 was called the Tenderfoot Trail.

According to the Colorado Department of Transportation, the highway names thrived through the 1920s before the federal government passed a law requiring a uniform numbering system for primary routes — even numbers for east-west roads, odd for north-south.

And so the highway names fell off our maps, to survive occasionally as a street name like “Rainbow Boulevard.”